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Sounds of Blackness*

Updated: Nov 27, 2019

Picking Up the Mantle/Taking Responsibility for Continuing Prince’s Legacy of Inclusion.

 

(Cover Photo by Randee St. Nicholas for Essence Magazine - June 2014).


Everyone seems to want to speak for Prince. Many claim to be the gatekeepers, the torchbearers, the ones carrying the messages of Prince to the common folk. People are chomping at the bit to be the expert, the go-to guy on Prince’s music in his absence, whether they have any real musical talent, knowledge, ever bought an album or attended a show prior to 4/21, or not, etc., catch my drift? Some of these music meisters are ready to pounce on those they deem unworthy and love to publicly condemn any behavior unbefitting a member of the kingdom. Rereading Dan Pienpenbring’s recent New Yorker article and observing some recent acts and omissions by others I have been musing more deeply on the topic of inclusion in the Purple World.


Revolutionary Exclusion


Last week, André Cymone tweeted the following: 



His ACTion caused a reACTion. It would be great not to have things like this happen, but when they do, this is how it’s supposed to work.


We have seen more than one person claiming the Revolution to be Prince’s only band, in conversations about the NPG and/or a reviews of NPG Shows. I am not saying that Cymone & Dickerson were left out because it was one black dude too many. I am observing the goings-on from a big-picture point of view. The Revolution Exclusion was chalked up to being an unintentional oversight … (can you see my Prince-Level side eye from there?) Is unintentional (while interestingly habitual) oversight better? Is this a SignO’theTimes? I will not go through each oversight individually, y’all can read, y’all know. Do we mean to say that in a room full of Prince collaborators having not one single person of color present seems normal and acceptable? We see certain people taking control of the narrative and wiping certain other people from the backdrop and we speak about it amongst ourselves but where are the “new guardians” who love to publicly rebuke bad actors in times like this? Would any change have been made in the above instance if André Cymone himself had not spoken up?


The book would allow him to seize the narrative of his own life. Once, he said, he’d seen one of his former employees on TV saying she thought it was her God-given duty to preserve and protect the unreleased material in his vault. “Now, that sounds like someone I should call the police on,” he told me. “How is that not racist?People were always casting him—and all black artists—in a helpless role, he said, as if he were incapable of managing himself. “I still have to brush my own teeth,” he said.1

Does it matter? Wow!2


Failing to include the perspectives of those who were part of history and happen to be of color is significant. Prince didn’t do it. Interestingly people claim to think like him, be like him, and yet have never had (and won’t ever have to have) the experience of standing in a room full of people who are “the authorities” and having not a single one of those people look like them or truly understand where they come from. They can put on the “sparkly” fun parts of his life without ever having to deal with any of the harsh realities.


For some people the harsh realities aren’t so easy to forget as they remain real right now, today. Some things don’t have to be taught, they are just part of everyday life for some of us. Different experiences and perspectives are key to the conversation of recorded Purple History – variety is the spice of life, yes?

“We spoke about diction. “Certain words don’t describe me,” he said. White critics bandied about terms that demonstrated a lack of awareness of who he was. “Alchemy” was one. When writers ascribed alchemical qualities to his music, they were ignoring the literal meaning of the word, the dark art of turning base metal into gold. He would never do something like that.3

Representation is important, ask Misty Copeland. By the way, you can call folks in a group out for wrongdoing without hating the entire group. You can love your own and love everybody else too. These things are not mutually exclusive, and are entirely possible, anything is possible.


Hurt Feelings over Human Rights


Some folks are real uncomfortable having the conversation. I have had people DM me on IG to tell me what I should/shouldn’t post so that they can continue to enjoy my page, as if they have paid for my services or are in some sort of position of authority over me - not like they are the actual Internet stranger they are, or that I am a free US citizen posting my thoughts/opinions on my own page (which they are completely free to unfollow at any time). You see, their “freedom of enjoyment”(that’s not a thing by the way) outweighs my First Amendment Rights because I am a person of color[{sarcasm}].


I am amused when Internet strangers come at me with the “public forum” argument when they clearly have a very limited understanding of Constitutional Law terms (words have meaning) whilst I am that nerdy kid who in my real life has a legit love for and knowledge of that specific topic (as an attorney for a branch of the government created by an Article of the Constitution some of these folks couldn’t name to save their lives) … but they think they have authority to educate me on my rights … {wooosaaaahhhh}. Why folks want to show up for intellectual warfare, ill-equipped, is beyond me. I know my lane. You’ll never hear me trying to out-talk a mechanic on the topic of vehicles because I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, lol! I know I drive Cadillacs, I like Bose Sound Systems, and I want the car to start when I put push the button, end of knowledge …. but I digress.


Eh-hem {clears throat}.

I am irked by folks using the “colorblind argument” as a means to dismiss a valid concern. There is nothing wrong with seeing color/race, etc. What is wrong, is viewing other humans as subhuman and restricting their rights based on what you see. Recognizing differences and appreciating them is cool, but how can you truly appreciate what you claim not to see? Prince saying he didn’t want to be limited to being considered a ‘black artist’ goes for one thing, to the idea that black folks were categorized and limited by the industry, regularly. With all the types of music he could play, it would seem obvious but folks see/hear what they want to see/hear.


The music industry had siloed black music from the start, he reminded me. It had promoted black artists to the “black base”; only when they captured that base would those artists “cross over.” Billboard had developed totally unnecessary charts to measure and quantify this division, which continued to this day. “Why didn’t Warner Bros. ever think I could be president of the label?” he asked. “I want to say in a meeting with big record executives, ‘O.K., you’re racist.’ How would you feel if I said that to you?” His eyes settled on mine with a blazing intensity. “Can we write a book that solves racism?” he asked. Before I could answer, he had another question: “What do you think racism means?4

I know enough about being black in the US, the time periods some of his statements were made, and existence as a minority in the corporate world, to understand how a person can develop feelings of self-hatred or swing in the opposite direction and develop hatred toward all others. (Though hopefully most find a happy medium).

A little later, Prince said, “I’ll be honest, I don’t think you could write the book.” He thought I needed to know more about racism—to have felt it. He talked about hip-hop, the way it transformed words, taking white language—“your language”—and turning it into something that white people couldn’t understand. Miles Davis, he told me, believed in only two categories of thinking: the truth and white bullshit.”5

I am more than a little irritated by people who say they are “tired of hearing about it (racism).” How tired do you think the ones LIVING it are!?!? C’mon, man!


Those questions became more complex as racism took on insidious guises, he said. “I mean, ‘All lives matter’—you understand the irony in that,” he said, referring to a far-right slogan that was gaining some traction at the time.6

ALL LIVES MATTER. Correct. All lives matter, INCLUDING BLACK ONES. Glad I could help clear that up. :)


Instead of deflecting and/or coming up with catchy slogans to respond to serious issues, we should be working together. Having a band made up of musicians of various races, ethnic backgrounds, genders, etc., may be controversial to some but The Truth is you reach more people, your message goes farther because more people can relate to you. It makes sense to me that Prince would continue to work with Piepenbring even after telling him he didn’t think he could write the book.

I am reminded of the scene in A Time to Kill when Samuel L. Jackson’s character basically says to Matthew McConaughey’s character, “You one of them, you got to say it so they can understand it.” McConaughey’s character’s feelings were obviously hurt, but he recognized the truth in the statement and acted accordingly, saving Sam Jack from a lifetime of prison after defending his daughter’s honor in a vigilante stunt. An excerpt from the film:


CARL LEE

You white and I’m black! I got it. See, Jake? You think

just like them. That’s why I picked you. You one of them,

don’t you see? Oh, you think you ain’t cause you eat at

Claude’s and and... and you’re out there tryin to get me on TV

talking about black and white. The fact is... you’re just

like all the rest of them. When you look at me, you don’t

see a man. You see a black man.


JAKE

Carl Lee... I am your friend...


CARL LEE

We ain’t no friends, Jake! We’re on different sides of the

line. I ain’t never seen you in my part of town. I bet you

don’t even know where I live. Our daughters... the ain’t

never gonna play together...


JAKE

What are you talk’n about...


CARL LEE

America... is a war... and you on the other side. How a black

man ever gonna get a fair trial with the enemy on the bench

and the jury box? My life in white hands. You... Jake.

That’s how. You my secret weapon, cause you one of the bad

guys. You don’t mean to be, but you are. It’s how you’re

raised. Nigga, Negro, Black, African-American; no matter

how you see me... you see me as different. You see me like

that jury see me. You are them. Now, throw out your points

of law, Jake. If you... was on the jury... what would it take

to convince you... to set me free. Figure that out. That’s

how you save my black ass. That’s how you save us both.” 7


That’s harsh, but there is something beautiful there. I always seek the beauty in things. The beauty here lies in the fact that these two people of differing backgrounds, accepting the current situation for what it is and working together, using what they brought to the table, could win, and they did. Carl Lee was right in that moment, and Jake, as much as his feelings were hurt, listened, and once he knew better, he did better. He brought his daughter to Carl Lee’s home to play with Carl Lee’s daughter.


“Compassion is an ACTion word with no boundaries.”


ACTion. People really seem to enjoy talking, being heard, being listened to. Not as many seem to want to actually do The Work. If you yourself are not racist that’s wonderful; a great start. How about using your power, if you have any at all, to help stop racism everywhere, be it casual, inadvertent, or deliberate? Get to know more than that one Black friend you can refer to in order to prove your colorblindness {rolls eyes}. (To be sure, I do know of some really good folks out there making a difference, I can think of some of you by name, ‘preciate cha). ;)

“I’ve never seen race, in a certain way—I’ve tried to be nice to everyone,” he said. He seemed to think that too few of his white contemporaries had the same open-mindedness, even as they fêted him for it.8

Er’body else, don’t hide. Don’t dismiss. It’s okay to be a support and let someone else lead the conversation on issues you care about but aren’t necessarily equipped to head up. You have a platform? Cool, bring in some other perspectives to truly help shed light and work toward change. Like Chris Rock said, sometimes your role in the band is to play the Tamborine.9


Standing for what Prince stood for shouldn’t be limited to only that which builds you up personally. Reminds me of the folks who take the parts of the Bible they like and leave the rest. HE experienced racism personally, the topic was something he had strong opinions on, just like his strong opinions on Artists’ Rights.

His best friend growing up was Jewish. “He looked a lot like you,” he said. One day, someone threw a stone at the boy. North Minneapolis was a black community, so it wasn’t until Prince started fourth grade, in 1967, when he and others in his neighborhood were bused to a predominantly white elementary school, that he experienced racism firsthand. In retrospect, he believed that Minnesota at that time was no more enlightened than segregationist Alabama had been; he’d sung scathingly about busing in the 1992 song “The Sacrifice of Victor.”“I went to school with the rich kids who didn’t like having me there,” he said. When one of them called him the N-word, Prince threw a punch. “I felt I had to. Luckily, the guy ran away, crying. But if there was a fight—where would it end? Where should it end? How do you know when to fight?”10

The folks who say he “transcended race” so they don’t have to say he was Black really need to stop. Why is him being a Black man a problem? I’m serious. Is it because of the realities that come with that station in life? He called himself that, repeatedly.11 We respect his wishes elsewhere, just not on this topic? His music was powerful enough to reach across boundaries of all kinds. No argument there. I’m talking about the folks who twist words to their liking. The ones who think he was “not really black” or “More than Black.”12


To the folks who “don’t want to talk about it,” and “just want to listen to the music,” I say go right ahead. Please add the following to your playlist, listen, listen well, and then get back with me. (Don’t worry, I’ll wait):

 Avalanche

 Family Name

 When Will We B Paid

 2045 Radical Man

 Golden Parachute

 The Chocolate Invasion

 U Make My Sunshine

 Dear Mr. Man

 Cinnamon Girl

 United States of Division

 Colonized Mind

 Dreamer

 Baltimore

 Black Muse


Race shouldn’t matter. It should not be a reason to take away another human’s rights, denigrate them, think them less than. Inclusion should be second nature, but for many, it just isn’t. That’s why the conversation is important. He said a whole lot. I can’t say I agree with it all. He changed his mind sometimes, but he spoke up. He also gave countless people of all kinds a voice, an opportunity to help do something different. That’s part of his legacy too, not just the music, but inclusion.


So, what is the answer, to the question of: Where are the folks in leadership standing up to continue his legacy of inclusion?


Willing to do The Work, With You.


Much love,


Violet

IG: @violetesq

www.VioletBInterACTive.com

PRINCE/365 A CELEBRATION


 

*Minneapolis-StPaul, Gospel, Soul, Jaz, R&B Ensemble.

  1. Piepenbring, Dan. “The Book of Prince.” The New Yorker. Sept. 2019. The New Yorker Web. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/09/the-book-of-prince [emphasis added].

  2. Prince, The New Power Generation (Lyrics from)Love 2 the 9s, ‘Symbol’ Album, NPG Records (1992).

  3. Piepenbring, New Yorker.

  4. Piepenbring.

  5. Piepenbring.

  6. Pienpenbring.

  7. From the script of A Time to Kill, Regency Enterprises (1996).

  8. Piepenbring.

  9. Tamborine, Chris Rock, Jax Media (2018); In Homage to Tamborine, Prince, Around The World In a Day (1985).

  10. Piepenbring.

  11. Example from lyrics to Breakfast Can Wait, Art Official Age, NPG Records/Warners (2014).

  12. Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee, 40 Acres and A Mule Filmworks (1989)(scene between Characters Pino and Mooky wherein Pino attempts to explain how Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and Prince are not “really Black, but More than Black,” as if success changes one’s race because Black people can’t be successful?

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